Delaware Writing Project

Writing in the Wild: A Delaware Writing Project Story, by Anthony Greenstine

By Aleta Thompson

Writing in the Wild: a Delaware Writing Project Story
Anthony Greenstine (Appoquinimink High School)

Watch as the wild, teenage essayists feverishly works to complete their essays. They ceaselessly hack away at their keyboards, trying to cram their wondrous ideas into a traditional, measly five paragraphs.

They put their head in their hands in relief that they are finally done, but look up suddenly, realizing that one body paragraph is too long while another one is too short. How could this happen?! They followed the outline exactly! Too tired from writing in the same format over and over, instead of revising, they just delete some sentences from the long paragraph and count the sentences in the short one and sigh in relief that it is the minimum seven sentences in length.

With both a sense of accomplishment and defeat, they submit their essays to the older, wiser person in the pack: the English Teacher.

Upon receiving all of the essays on time, and even a few early, the English Teacher beams with pride and congratulates the teenage essayists on a job well done: they just completed the essays that they spent two weeks working on while learning the writing process.

The English Teacher dismisses his students for the day and excitedly goes to brag to a colleague that all of the essays were turned in on time; the English Teacher is sure that these essays will be amazing.

Sitting down to start grading the essays, the wild English Teacher prepares the rubrics and his pen and begins reading. After what feels like an eternity, the English Teacher looks up at the clock and realizes that he has only been grading for thirty minutes: he has graded five papers. While reading the sixth paper, the English Teacher puts his head in his hands and lets out a whimper: he realized that all of the papers sound exactly the same. He quickly finds the essay of the student that will surely get the highest grade, hoping that it will sound different: it does not. The essays are good, according to the rubric, but they all fit the same mold and they all read like near identicals. The English Teacher silently prays to the grading gods and trudges through the sixty remaining essays left to grade.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we assign an exciting essay prompt and then force students to write in such a strict format that they lose all creativity in their writing? Why do we preach the five paragraph essay like it is the savior of all writing when, in reality, we end up hating nearly every essay we read because they all sound the same?

This year, the Delaware Writing Project took a critical look into how we teach the writing process, and we used Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts as our guide to busting the traditional five paragraph essay.

 

Utilizing mentor texts to teach my students how to write has revolutionized my views on the writing process and what an essay should look like. Too often I fell into the trap of coming up with a great essay prompt only to have it thwarted by the five paragraph essay format that I taught. Through my work with The Delaware Writing Project, I was able to break away from teaching my students how to write an introduction paragraph, and instead, teach them how to write introductions that could be one, two, or even three paragraphs in length. Having the mentor texts as a guide allowed my students to see “writing in the wild,” and they realized that a paragraph does not have to be seven to ten sentences, an introduction does not have to be all boring background information, an essay can be as many paragraphs as it needs to be. Some of my students actually stopped calling their essay an essay and referred to it as an article.

The mentor texts opened my students’ minds to structuring their essays based on their ideas as opposed to forcing their ideas to fit an essay structure. The mentor texts showed my students that they can have their voice in their writing, and they can even use the dreaded “I,” “me,” and “my” meaningfully. My students did not just speak to me, their teacher, but they spoke to a much wider audience. In a way, they spoke to both their peers and themselves.

The process was challenging at first: they were confused, lost, and uncertain. The process, however, became easier and more exciting. They actually wanted to revise their writing. They actually wanted someone else to read what they wrote. They asked each other for help, referred to the mentor texts, and even used each other as exemplars before even thinking to ask me for help. Breaking the mold of the five paragraph essay by using mentor texts revolutionized how I view writing and the writing process.

I actually found that I was enjoying myself while I was grading their essays. I did not stop and count how many were left. I did not stare at the clock wondering how much longer grading will take. I read each essay with a smile because every student tried incorporating the lessons we went over using the mentor texts; I could see the trepidation in their drafts and the wonder and excitement in their final copies.

I know I said this already, but it needs repeating: Breaking the mold of the five paragraph essay by using mentor texts revolutionized how I view writing and the writing process. Don’t get caught in the trap of teaching your students a restrictive structure; allow your students to see writing in the wild; allow them to see how real authors write; allow them to share their voice and their writing style.

Watch as the wild English Teacher becomes tired of reading the same essay over and over again. The wild English Teacher frantically searches for a solution. He comes across the idea of using mentor texts to teach the writing process:  he shows students what real writing looks like by finding current and relevant articles. The English Teacher scours the Internet and finds five articles that he knows his students will enjoy. The English Teacher reads the articles and finds commonalities among them: they all structure their writing by ideas; they all use multiple paragraphs for their introductions; they all use parenthetical phrases; they all integrate quotes and synthesize evidence. The English Teacher finds a few more commonalities, and decides that these skills are going to be what he will teach his students and begins writing the lessons.

 

At the end of the next unit the English Teacher reveals both the new writing process and the wild teenage essayists are confused and excited.

The day before the final draft is due, the teenage essayists are ferociously typing away; their fingers almost roaring as they hit each letter. They are excited, they are proud, they are engaged. The teenage essayists read over each other’s writing, providing feedback. They refer back to the mentor texts that they have referred to many times to make sure that they are correctly using a parenthetical phrase.

The next day, the teenage essayists eagerly turn in their essays. They hold their heads up high as they proudly present their essay to the older, wiser English Teacher.

After dismissing the students for the day, the wild English Teacher sits down at his desk to begin grading the essays. He has seen drafts, so he has an idea of what to expect. He reads the first paper and smiles. He reads the second paper and smiles even more. He read the third paper, and then excitedly skims through each paper to confirm his hope. The wild English Teacher beams with excitement and continues to read each paper, finally able to hear the voice of the wild teenage essayist.

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